Paranoid Style's Elizabeth Nelson lays a very real claim to being the most politically-aware songwriter of modern times, and her lyrics recall the sharp articulations of Elvis Costello while the music itself has the pulse of Sleater-Kinney over the style of T. Rex. On the occasion of a reissue of Rock & Roll Just Can't Recall finding its way on Robert Christgau's 'Dean's List' for last year (not the first time either), I asked Elizabeth Nelson to answer a few questions:
Q: You mentioned that you’re heading back to the studio, I presume to record LP2, A Goddamn Impossible Way of Life?
Yes! We spent four days in the studio last week and I think we got almost all of the tracking done. I’m extremely excited about it. I was lucky to have Paranoid Style-stalwarts Bruce Bennett, William Matheny and Jon Langmead take time off of their other obligations to travel for recording. Also my husband, whose presence was compulsory. I think it sounds amazing. I’m really happy with it.
Q: Your music often has a political bend to it, and I’m thinking particularly of “Underworld USA” or how “I Believe U Believe U Can Fly,” which points to the big emptiness of small phrases… should we expect similar on LP2?
I think so. I am a political songwriter for sure and that’s going to be part and parcel of any Paranoid Style release. And I am definitely interested in the elements of late capitalism which seek to paper over institutional deficiencies with advertising slogans or rhetorical misdirections. But this record is going to be very different from ‘Underworld USA’ or any of the previous Paranoid Style releases. The themes are consonant but the canvas is larger, if that makes any sense!
Q: Will there be a big tour to promote the new record? (Come to Canada…)
No! No, there will not be. Ha! We all have day jobs and lives outside the context of the band so our capacity for touring is close to non-existent. Having said that, we generally play a few things we are offered every year that sound particularly gratifying. Last year we played a couple of shows opening for our friends Wussy, one with the great Wreckless Eric and an Oxford American festival celebrating the 50th anniversary of the novel ‘True Grit’ written by my favorite author Charles Portis. Those we’re all great opportunities and super fun. So we will do a few live things, or ‘Rare Public Appearances’ as we like to term them. We love Canada and would be excited for a chance to play there.
Q: One last question about politics: who do you think is making the most political songs today? Who is the Minutemen or Gang of Four of the 2010s?
If I’m being honest, I’m not as up to date on current music as I should be so I’m sort of underqualified to answer this question. But like most people I’m pretty knocked out by Kendrick Lamar. Patterson Hood from the Drive By-Truckers’ is a remarkably good writer in the social-realist vain. Aesop Rock has some incredible songs about the labor movement. Obviously I’m psyched for new Sleater-Kinney. And The Mekons are still the sheriff in town as far as I’m concerned.
Q: A big, belated congratulations on making Robert Christgau’s Dean’s List again with Rock & Roll Just Can’t Recall + 3! This is a 2-parter: what’re your favorite releases of yesteryear, and since I know you’re a big fan of Robert Christgau, so what other critics are you a fan of?
Thanks! It’s always an enormous honor to be acknowledged by The Dean. Favorite releases of yesteryear is a list too long to be practical, but any shortlist would include ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’ by Sly Stone, ‘Lincoln’ by They Might Be Giants and ‘Veedon Fleece’ by Van Morrison. Lots of great critics working out there! In the music sphere, Amanda Petrusich is wonderful, as is Laura Snapes. I always read Lindsay Zoladz. Caryn Rose is terrific. For film critics, Adam Nayman, Ann Hornaday and Nick Pinkerton are my favorites but there’s lots of good work out there. For TV, Emily Nussbaum is an outstanding.
Q: Your Twitter feed is awesome, and given the insightful write-ups, it was no surprise that you’ve done your fair share of music criticism. The last Tweet you made was about Stephen Malkmus, whose vocal and lyric style can be easily heard in your music, so let’s play: rank the Pavement albums! (Or, rank the Malkmus records! Are you excited for his new one this year?)
It’s his dance record! Of course I am excited. I’m an enormous fan of Malkmus and certainly think of him as an influence. It might just be my impression, but I feel like between all of the great melodies and him playing such a stellar guitar that his gifts as a lyricist get a little overlooked. I think it’s a shame because I think he’s a remarkably good lyricist. I think the lyrics to ‘Church On White’ or ‘Stop Breathing’ are like Loudon Wainwright songs. Just these remarkable journeys. So yeah, he’s a super important to me. I guess I’ll try and rank the Pavement records, but this definitely fluctuates on an almost day to day basis: 1) Wowee Zowee 2) Crooked Rain 3) Brighten The Corners 4) Slanted 5) Terror Twilight
Q: In addition to Malkmus, there’s also a lot of Lou Reed/The Velvet Underground in the Paranoid Style, but a lot of glam rock too, especially when there’s a lot of piano and movement. It makes me think of the early 1970s, like I’m listening to T. Rex, Bowie and the New York Dolls. Which artists have influenced you and your husband that listeners wouldn’t expect?
Oh, I’m a huge glam fan. I love all of it: T-Rex, The Sweet, Slade. Of course Bowie. I think Mick Ronson from the Spiders From Mars is a really overlooked figure, an absolute genius. Produced so many great records and played on so many more. Morrissey’s ‘Your Arsenal’ is amazing and probably his best record. As far as influences that might not be evident, I love early Janet Jackson. The stuff with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis- ‘Control’ and ‘Rhythm Nation’. When I was younger I was a huge dyed-in-the-wool ska girl and I still love the Two Tone Records catalog. And I was a theater kid growing up and genuinely love some of the best Broadway soundtracks. You’ll probably hear at least a little ‘Rocky Horror’ in the new Paranoid Style record.
Q: Last question: how do we get you to write for Pretty Much Amazing?
Have your people contact my people, obviously. No, that’s kind of you to ask! You guys are doing a great job over here and I’m honored to be interviewed.